Recently I returned from a trip to Eastern Europe, where I visited Romania and spent 2 weeks throughout the Carpathian Mountains in mysterious Transylvania. Romania is celebrating their 100th year of being a country and coincidentally, this was my 100th country, as per the Century Traveller’s Club, which monitors such events. All my travels are land-based, as I have never set foot on a cruise ship.
Flying to Romania is done in two legs: Toronto to Munich and then to Bucharest, the capital. All together about 10 hours flying with a layover. I normally take a few days for the stopover, to adjust to new time zones, etc.
I downloaded Bram Stoker’s Dracula onto my IPad and took it with me, as I wanted to make sure I was prepared in the event I was confronted with a vampire. Romania has several regions, Transylvania being one of them, but the country is divided into 41 counties. The Carpathian Mountains are natural borders for Transylvania and are among the most scenic area I have ever seen.
There are two main castles in the region. The most picturesque is Peles, which was built in the late 1800s, and was the summer residence for the Royal Family. Touring the inside is a must, as the décor and furnishings will astound you. The other main bastion worth a visit is Bran Castle, which is associated with Dracula.
Present day Romania was formed in 1866 when it gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. In 1881 King Carol established a monarchy, and the Kingdom of Romania was officially formed. It flourished until 1947, when King Michael abdicated. During World War II, Romania fought with the Nazis against the Russians, a formidable neighbour who wanted control of the region. The country was transformed into a Socialist Republic, a regime which lasted until 1989. It was ruled by Nicolae Ceaușescu, a not-so-nice dictator, from 1965 until 1989, when a revolution created a democratic country, at a cost of thousands of lives.
I learned the truth about the legend of Dracula, created by Bram Stoker, who had never set foot in Romania. He interviewed travellers and loosely based his story on Vlad Tepes, the son of Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Dragon). When Vlad came to power he had the task of uniting Romania, which he did. In fact, anyone who opposed him was impaled, causing people to be somewhat afraid of him. This led to his nickname, the Devil.
When Bram Stoker set out to write Dracula he presumed that Dracul, Vlad’s family name, meant devil and decided to add an ‘a’ at the end. A legend was born. Borgo Pass is where Stoker’s set his novel, but there is only countryside. Bran Castle, however, located about 4 hours away, and is generally referred to as Vlad the Impaler’s castle, is the one associated with Dracula.
Another myth was that of the gypsies of Romania. First of all, gypsies prefer to be called zigeuners. They are referred to as Romas, not because they come from Romania, but because their origins date back to Roman times. This frustrates the Romanian people to no end, as the world identifies gypsies with Romania. I expected to see gypsies with violins, singing and dancing around a wagon, but instead saw a few, living in houses, just like everyone else. Their origins, by the way, are from Northern India and the women still wear sari-style dresses, while the men wear black hats. They tend to be craftsman, selling their wares along the streets. Many zigeuners have left Romania and the Balkans, and have headed to western European countries.
The most picturesque part of Transylvania is the Carpathian Mountains. I drove through them several times, but at one point stopped at the top of a ridge and, as I looked below, saw a lengthy ribbon of road that I had just travelled. It was spectacular.
One of the most remarkable sights are the ‘Painted Monasteries’ near Bucovina (north east Romania), now occupied by nuns. Their painted exterior walls are decorated with elaborate 15th and 16th century frescoes featuring portraits of saints and prophets, scenes from the life of Jesus, images of angels and demons, and heaven and hell.
Deemed masterpieces of Byzantine art, these churches are one-of-a-kind architectural sites in Europe.
Far from being merely wall decorations, the murals represent complete cycles of religious events.
The purpose of the frescoes was to make the story of the Bible, and the lives of the most important Orthodox saints known to villagers by the use of images. Their outstanding composition, elegant outline and harmonious colours blend perfectly with the surrounding landscape.
A great and surprising site I came upon was the Merry Cemetery, in the far north, near the Ukrainian border. It is famous for the very colourful tombstones depicting the life and careers of the people buried there. Some of the epitaphs are quite hilarious and diverges from the prevalent belief, culturally shared within European societies – a belief that views death as something indelibly solemn.
Transylvania is one of those areas, which because we know little about it (other than Dracula), is unfortunately, often overlooked as a tourist destination. Having spent two weeks there last month, I can only rave about its beauty, culture and friendliness of the people.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com